Protests songs were composed and recorded and spread like wildfire, aided by the popularity of those who interpreted them. John Lennon and Joan Baez come to mind. These movements ended up in influencing the outcome of what they were protesting against.
This is simply not a modern development. I am limiting myself to a few examples as to how opera influenced political life in Italy - the home, the very cradle of opera. It is an art form combining vocal and instrumental music, acting, dance, visual arts (scenery and costumes) and the literature which inspired plots, simple or complicated, the real and imaginary.
Such an art form took root amongst a people renowned for their love of song and music, drama, colour and excitement. It provided the ways and means to distract the not so well-off from the problems and hardships of everyday life.
The latter was the lot of the vast majority, where social differences were widely established, with everybody supposed to accept their position in the social pecking order.
It could be seen in the way theatres were built, with the best and most expensive seating available to the wealthy, whilst the poorest could only afford standing places, or sitting on hard benches in the gallery or loggione.
Yet even today, in certain Italian opera houses, it is the loggione which is feared by singers and directors. It is where those really passionate opera buffs stay, and they know their stuff. This is rather unlike a large section of the audience sitting in the smarter areas, who are there to see and be seen. These people care little for the work, and more for the social aspects of the event.
However, there were times when the political situation tended to unite all sections of society against certain prevailing situations.
The effects of the French Revolution and spread of liberal ideas all over Europe, combined with a strong nationalism, threatened to upset the political status quo as established during the Congress of Vienna (1814-15). This aimed to establish order in mainland Europe after 23 years of war and upheaval.
At the base of it all was utter and total control over all forms of expression, especially that of the written word. Harsh censorship was the order of the day.
In Italy as in other countries this was very much felt, with an added grievance to most Italians that their country was divided into a number of states big and small, which were either under the direct or indirect control of the Austrian power.
These states were also linked by marriage to two other old dynasties - the Bourbons in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and the Duchy of Parma and the Habsburgs ruling directly in Lombardy and Venetia, and through relatives in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and Duchy of Modena.
The House of Savoy was the only native Italian dynasty ruling the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont. As for the Papal States, well, new ideas were anathema there.
One of many early signs of trouble with the censors was Bellini’s opera Bianca and Fer[di]nando (Naples, 1826). Just because the hero’s name was like that of the heir to the throne, the future Ferdinando II, the censors objected. Bellini had to change the hero’s name to Gernando, because the heir’s named could not be used in stage works.
The great Verdi had many clashes with the censors in various parts of Italy. Two of the best known are those regarding Rigoletto (1851) and Un Ballo in Maschera (1859), but also regarding the lesser known Stiffelio (1850), even if the problem there was a moral and social one rather than political.
Stiffelio is about a Protestant minister who eventually forgives his adulterous wife. The censors objected to many aspects of this work, treating it even more harshly than Rigoletto, on which Verdi was concurrently working.
Verdi had to cut so many parts of Stiffelio that he withdrew it in 1856, and later came up with another version known as Aroldo, set in thirteenth century Anglo Saxon England and Scotland. I saw the original version at Covent Garden some years ago, with Domingo in the title role.
Rigoletto deals with a failed attempt to assassinate a reigning King. Based on Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse in which Triboulet (Rigoletto), King François I of France’s jester, plots to murder his master for having seduced his daughter.
However even a failed attempt to kill a king was considered an extremely bad example in a country ruled by petty tyrants. The king was relegated to Duke of Mantua, then a non existent title since 1703.
Despite all, in 1854 the philandering Duke of Parma Carlo III was assassinated during one of his nightly prowlings in the city’s fleshpots (shades of the Duke in Rigoletto!) This murder was never solved.
Verdi faced more trouble with Un Ballo in Maschera, about the assassination during a fancy dress ball of King Gustav III of Sweden in 1792. The censors were horrified. Roles and locations had to change, mainly that of king to Earl of Warwick, and the scene shifted across the Atlantic to seventeenth century New England, where Warwick is Governor of an English colony.
In due course things changed, and nowadays the original version is performed. I was lucky enough to see this version in Vienna about three years ago.
In Ernani (1844), Verdi had to compromise with regard to the role of the Emperor Carlo (Charles V). As early as 1842, Nabucco struck a chord with the public, who shared Verdi’s patriotic ideas.
No wonder the famous chorus Va’ pensiero became immensely popular, because the public saw in the Hebrews’ condition a reflection of their situation under Austrian tyranny. It has long been considered as Italy’s unofficial national anthem!
The plight of Scottish exiles in Macbeth (1847), the Patria oppressa chorus is yet another one. In other works, Verdi combines statements of patriotism and anticlericalism in Don Carlo (1867) and Aïda (1871).
Very significant was the way Verdi’s name was used by patriots to express support for the King of Sardinia. The House of Savoy became a leading element of the movement for Italian unity, which led it to disaster at the hands of Austrians.
King Carlo Alberto abdicated in favour of his son Vittorio Emanuele II. Patriots could not openly publicly risk showing support in for the new king so they shouted, printed and painted slogans everywhere reading "VIVA VERDI" - (V.E.R.D.I.) or Vittorio Emanuele Re d’Italia. Although with unification far from complete, thus was the king officially proclaimed in Turin in March 1861.
A rather special incident was a performance in Brussels of Auber’s La Muette de Portici, also known as Masaniello. It was premiered in Paris with success in 1828 and performed many times in Brussels in the following two years.
The plot is set in 1647 Naples during Masaniello’s revolt against Spanish tyranny, and was considered too dangerous to stage after revolution broke out in Paris late in July 1830.
After Napoleon’s fall, Belgium was joined to the Kingdom of the Netherlands as the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. It was very unpopular with the Belgians, who chafed under Dutch discrimination.
Performances to mark King William I’s fifteen years’ reign were cancelled, except the last one on 25th August 1830, when a planned fireworks display was banned. Conspirators were planted in the La Monnaie Opera House, with others gathered outside.
When a patriotic duet was sung it was enthusiastically received, the fifth act was booed in order to bring about a stop to the opera, and the inflamed patriots rushed out joining the others outside and went on a rampage.
The police tried to stop the ensuing riot but failed. It was the beginning of the Belgian Revolution and intermittent war with the Dutch, which only ended in 1839 with the Treaty of London, which established Belgian independence and neutrality, guaranteed by the Great Powers.
A new nation won its freedom. It was Germany's violation of that treaty by invading Belgium 75 years later which pushed Great Britain into World War One.